Erika Shields was named chief of the Louisville Metro Police Department in January after a 25-year career with the Atlanta Police Department, where she served as chief from 2016 to 2020. Chief Shields spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about why she got into policing, some challenging situations she faced in Atlanta, and her plans for the Louisville Metro Police Department.


Chuck Wexler: What were you doing before you got into policing? Why did you become a cop?

Chief Shields: I was working as a stockbroker. I didn’t enjoy it. I slogged along and saw the amount of money a person could make. But I realized I just wasn’t happy. I stepped back and thought about what I wanted to do. I had always been fascinated by law enforcement, and that had been the profession that pulled at me. So I made a decision to go do it.

Wexler: Did you grow up in Atlanta?

Chief Shields: No, in upstate New York. And I was working and living in Boston at the time I made the career change. I really did not like cold weather, so I figured that if I was going to make a career change, I should also make a geographic change to a warmer climate.

Wexler: What was it like to transition from being a stockbroker to being a cop?

Chief Shields: As a recruit, it was difficult at first. I would not go a day without hearing how I was a “damn Yankee.” And I was aware that I didn’t have a background in law enforcement, and I didn’t know anybody.

My academy class was about six months long, and I had some uncertainty about whether I could pull this off. But my academy class and instructor were very supportive of everyone, which made the journey much easier. I worked with a number of very kind people.

When I started policing, I enjoyed it too much for anything to be an obstacle. I literally would’ve worked for free the first several years. I was having that much fun.

Wexler: As you worked your way up, what did you see as some of the better parts of policing? What were some of the aspects you thought needed to be improved?

Chief Shields: Without question, the best moments were the camaraderie and the sense that we were in it together. I worked with a really diverse group of people, but when it came to policing, we were all the same. We really enjoyed one another, and we enjoyed the job.

As for the operational difficulties of the job, I think that in every agency, some people start to get salty after a couple years. Earlier, they had so much fun at the job, but now they find every reason to criticize their employer. That’s not who I am; I’m not a glass-half-empty person. I realized I’d need to challenge myself to keep my positive energy moving.

A more personal difficulty was that we had multiple officers killed early in my career, and one was a very close friend of mine. That really devastated me.

Wexler: Tell us about when you were chief in Atlanta and pulled your officers off of federal task forces.

Chief Shields: We had an officer-involved shooting, and I let the mayor know that it wasn’t going to be straightforward. There were already some concerns about it. They were on a federal task force, so part of it was confusion about who would be in charge of the investigation. I told the mayor I would get the body-worn camera footage so we could look at it together.

I reached out to our investigator’s commander, and they told me they’d get me the footage. Then that commander and my deputy chief came back and told me they don’t wear body-worn cameras, which shocked us all.

This is a case where the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. Our technology people had been equipping everyone with body-worn cameras over the course of the previous year. When they got to the officers on a federal task force, they were told that the federal task force did not allow body-worn cameras to be worn. But that was never communicated to the upper-level supervisors. All this time we just assumed they were wearing them, and it was a rough way to find out that was not the case.

I immediately wanted to get cameras on them. That’s when I ran into the wall that was the DOJ. I find it almost comical that, for all the money and talk from the federal government about body-worn cameras, it never occurred to them to equip their own people with them.

I made a point of communicating with the various task force agents on the ground, and they all understood my position. The problem was that the lawyers in Washington were blocking this process. They were telling agents that my officers could not wear cameras. So I had no option but to pull my officers out of these task forces. I could not have another officer-involved shooting where we did not get it on video because we knowingly had someone working tactically without wearing a camera. I felt bad, because I really liked our federal partners, but they understood.

It triggered a discussion at DOJ, as well as a number of other mayors asking what their police departments were doing. The reason the DOJ changed their posture was because of the support the other major city chiefs gave me. Had I been alone in making this decision, you wouldn’t have seen the changes you did. The federal policy was changed because the other major city chiefs stood up and said their people needed to be wearing them. I’ll always appreciate the support I received.

Wexler: Tell us about changes you made to the Atlanta Police Department’s pursuit policy.

Chief Shields: I have never been a fan of police pursuits. Going through my career, I saw too many innocent people killed because police drove recklessly. But I also understand that pursuits have a role.

As chief, I tried to rein them in. I had a lot of angst over it. When you have 21- or 22-year-old officers and you are giving them a two-ton steel object to go flying through the city streets at 80 miles per hour, it’s not a good practice.

From the GPS in the cars, I was able to glean that we had too many people driving quickly when they didn’t need to be. Our policy was very rigid, but it was a question of how closely the policy was being adhered to.

Around that time, we had a pursuit and two innocent people were killed. It just is not worth it. Most people who steal cars, or in this day and age, even carjackers aren’t held accountable by the courts. I think you have to look at it as, “What if it was your loved one who got killed?” Looking at the risk/reward, it was not worth it.

But I also understood that it was not realistic to think that you could not pursue entirely as a law enforcement agency. And I knew I was going against the culture of law enforcement, which is very strongly in favor of police pursuits.

With that in mind, I reached out to PERF. I needed a professionally-recognized third party to look at the data and practices, then provide feedback. We needed that professional feedback.

Wexler: Why did you want to be the Louisville Metro police chief?

Chief Shields: When I stepped back from the chief’s job in Atlanta, the first couple months were such an array of emotions. I just needed to shut down. As I started to come back out of my shell, I was entertaining some job offers from the private sector. They were very good offers and I’m appreciative of them, but it felt boring and I knew I wasn’t ready.

For me, law enforcement has been a calling. There’s a higher purpose for what I’m doing. It’s never just been about locking up folks or fighting crime. At my core, there’s always been a strong feeling that it’s equally important to be fighting for civil rights. Law enforcement plays a key role in civil rights in the United States, both historically and currently.

At that point, I started looking at the job openings, and there were a fair number of them. What jumped out at me about Louisville was how devastating the death of Breonna Taylor was. It was just heartbreaking. And the more I studied the events surrounding her death, the more I realized there were some very strong parallels to what we had experienced in Atlanta.  I could see that LMPD was taking the same posture that Atlanta did in 2009, after two very high-profile events. I knew how LMPD would respond to what they were facing after the Breonna Taylor incident – denial that they did anything wrong, thinking they didn’t deserve the criticism they were getting, and that it wasn’t race-related. I could anticipate every response LMPD would have.

I knew then that I was equipped to help them navigate this, because I had been there. Not identical, but I’ve been there. Having been there, what I could say to the department was, “Until you truly take ownership of what occurred here, you will not get better. If you want to rise up and improve, you have to take ownership of what occurred here.”

So Louisville was the only department I applied to, and I’m very appreciative to have gotten the job.

Wexler: You have two constituencies – the community and the police department – that are hurting for different reasons. How do you manage those two constituencies?

Chief Shields: My approach is to listen and support, but at the end of the day, LMPD will be judged by how we perform. I feel as though I can give interviews and do meet-and-greets all day long, but until LMPD performs in a manner that is indicative of truly having changed, we won’t be successful.

In saying that, I have walked into a department where the officers are spectacular. I was very concerned that they would be checked out, and I would have understood that. But they want to work. They want the community to respect them. We have to get the homicides down, but this is a good core group of people.

Wexler: You didn’t have much of a honeymoon phase in Louisville. How have you managed that?

Chief Shields: There hasn’t been any honeymoon here. And I don’t think anyone would’ve been afforded a honeymoon here. The emotional state was so high that it just wasn’t the landscape here.

There have been detractors and criticism from multiple different sectors against multiple people, including me. I’m mission-driven and goal-oriented, so I listen, but I don’t become derailed by the noise. I just focus and keep moving forward.

I am going to bring us to a better space. I really hope everyone will come work with me. The other choice is to just sit there and complain for the next 10 years. That’s your choice. 



The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.